by Janet Gilmore
On my way to have lunch with my cousin Len the other day in Center City, I passed the Chatham apartment building at 20th and Walnut Streets, where I lived for seven years as a single woman in the 1970s. The Chatham is a grand dame of a building. They haven’t changed the wallpaper in the lobby since 1974. I loved living there. My tiny apartment on the eighth floor faced west, so I saw the sun set every evening. Glorious.
At the time the building housed many elderly residents. Traditions had grown there. A man came down into the lobby every year in a red vest to play his violin in front of the lobby Christmas tree.
A retired woman returned to the Chatham, pale and wobbly every afternoon, several cocktails under her girdle, and invited me into her apartment where, lying on her bed dressed in nothing but her long fur coat, she offered me a whisky and told me stories about being an executive secretary for a big company in Center City.
Mr. Neal, who seemed to be the oldest person in the world at the time, sat in the lobby every day and evening in an very old three-piece suit, starched shirt and tie, read the Wall Street Journal, smoked one Lucky Strike after another, and observed the comings and goings of the tenants. Whatever happened in the lobby, he knew it.
I was 27 then, and Center City and the downtown life were mine. I took it as my due whenever I finished walking past, over, around and through Rittenhouse Square, and returned to the Chatham, that Mr. Neal would be sitting in the lobby to greet me.
He talked like Reginald van Gleason.
“Mmm, good afternoon, Miss Janet.”
“Hi, Mr. Neal. How are you today?” I said as I breezed in.
He never really answered — just lit another cigarette. I found out everything I knew about him from other people in the building. His apartment was the same small size as mine, three stories above me. He had been a stockbroker. He never married. He had a niece who checked on him once in a while. As far as I knew, he never left the lobby.
The night the electricity went out in the building, I doubted that Mr. Neal would make it down 11 flights of stairs and back up without the elevator, so I took some yogurt and a banana up to his door but didn’t have the courage to knock, so I just left them anonymously in front of his door, although I was very curious about what his apartment looked like.
Mr. Neal was in the lobby every night. I counted on him being there as a constant presence at my downtown home, as perhaps he counted on me to let him know there was life outside the lobby.
Over time, he slowly caved in to his own body. His head sank lower into his chest, and his suit became bigger on him. Still smoking and reading the Wall Street Journal. Maybe he wasn’t really lonely.
“Mmm, Good evening, Miss Janet.”
“Hi, Mr. Neal.”
One day, he wasn’t in the lobby. Nor the following day. I was told he had died. For the first time in my young life, I realized I knew hardly anything about someone I’d liked who was now gone, survived by a big glass ashtray.
I missed him. Why didn’t I ask him more questions? He seemed ancient when I met him, but of course he had been young once. He was the first very old man, not a relative, I had a chance to get to know, but with the insouciance of youth, I wasn’t very interested.
The Chatham is now a non-smoking building, but I still pictured Mr. Neal and his ashtray in the lobby. But I had to go; my cousin Len was waiting. Len is 92 years old and the last of my parents’ generation — the Greatest Generation — and I wonder if that isn’t true. Len now uses a walker; otherwise, he’s as bright and funny as ever.
We walked to Rachael’s Deli. He ordered a corned beef special sandwich. “I thought you watch what you eat,” I said.
“Not any more,” he said. “I eat everything now.” Len told me that his ex-wife had died. She was an odd woman; they had been divorced for many years. I hadn’t seen her since I was a kid and she showed up at my grandmother’s funeral in a white mink coat and white go-go boots.
“Why did you marry her?” I asked.
“Sex,” he said. Is it any wonder I love talking to this guy? We talked; he told me stories I never heard before.
“Why did you leave her?”
“She became more and more violent. She came after me with a knife one evening. When I called the police, they told me I’d better get out because I wasn’t safe. So I did, but it took 15 years to get a divorce. She got a bunch of her girlfriends to picket my office with signs saying that I didn’t pay her enough alimony. Yeah, it was in the newspaper. She took everything I had. I was lucky to get out with my life.”
All that was happening to a cousin I considered a grown-up, and therefore beyond melodrama. While I was in my apartment at the Chatham watching “All My Children,” real soap opera stuff was happening in my own family, and I barely noticed. I’m so lucky I had the chance to talk to Len the other day. He has a lively mind, and his memory is good. His stories are my heritage. I should collect as many as I can.
Len and his pretty girlfriend, Sandy, had to leave the deli and finish packing for six months in Florida. They were leaving the following day. How many six-month periods are left in my dear cousin’s life that he can afford to toss off six months as though it were an afternoon nap?
“Your job,” I told him as we were saying goodbye, “is to come back from Florida alive.”
“Well, you know, Jan, I’ve adjusted to this part of my life. I’m an old man and I live like an old man. When I get tired, I take a nap. And whatever happens, I’m not afraid. Listen, if you can’t die when you’re 92, you don’t deserve to die…
“Text me while I’m away.”